L oneliness is seen as a frivolous issue that is often brushed under the rug. Many are not aware of the detrimental effects isolation can have on one’s psychological and physical health. It is neglected by bystanders and often the insular as well, who think that time will resolve the pain. Not anymore. The British government has created a separate ministry unconditionally targeted to work with the problem of loneliness. How effective can this new legislation be in solving the problems related to loneliness?
The British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister for Loneliness on January 17 according to the New York Times. Tracey Crouch, the current Minister for Sports and Civil Society, will lead the plan to devise policies connected to loneliness. Interest in loneliness in Britain was led by Jo Cox of the Labor Party, murdered in 2016 by an ultra-rightist man shouting “Britain first” before a referendum concerning Britain's secession from the European Union (EU). After her death, a bipartisan committee was established to carry out her work. According to the report published on loneliness back in 2017 by the Jo Cox Commission, the mental pain of social isolation is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The scale of this mental health issue is so large that it affects nine million people in the United Kingdom (UK) alone, which motivated the British parliament to introduce a separate entity targeting this problem. May announced that, “for far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.” Following the establishment of this ministry, May claimed that she wanted to “confront this challenge for our society” and for everyone to take action in addressing loneliness. The Prime Minister also hinted that loneliness is big among the elderly and those who have lost loved ones.
▲ Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Loneliness. Provided by traceycrouch.org
Loneliness—Eating the Brain Away
It is a widely known fact that mental health problems can lead to physical dilapidation. Just like stress accelerates premature aging by shortening deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) telomeres, loneliness can expedite death. In addition, the Telegram suggests that loneliness poses a fatal risk to one’s health; it is even deadlier than obesity and should be considered a major public health hazard. Researchers broke down over 200 studies on the health effects of isolation of approximately four million people. Experts discovered that loneliness can increase the chance of dying at an early age by around 50 percent compared to those with good social connections. On the other hand, obesity increases the risk of dying before the age of 70 by only 30 percent.
Again, in the report from the Jo Cox Commission, “young or old, loneliness does not discriminate.” There is a stereotype that loneliness is an illness that is prominent in the elderly. Yet recent studies show that loneliness also affects those aged 18 to 34. According to Age UK—the largest charity organization for the elderly—20 to 80 percent of adolescents have reported that they often feel lonely, compared to around 40 to 50 percent in the community of the elderly.
Cox also mentioned that in 2017 they have heard from “new parents, children, disabled people, carers, refugees and older people about their experience of loneliness.” During an interview with the New York Times, Carol Jenkins—a retired nurse from Berkshire—highlighted the seriousness of loneliness reaching a wide range of demographics. “There are so many university students who just lock themselves in their rooms for days,” said Jenkins. “It is only a matter of time before loneliness turns into depression, and that is where it gets dangerous.”
The senior research scientist at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago says that, “the intensity of loneliness decreases from young adulthood through middle age and does not become intense again until the oldest old age.” Statistics from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project found that “only 30 percent of older adults feel lonely fairly often.” In the past loneliness was perceived to be prevalent in the elderly; but not anymore. Older adults should not be the target for the effects of loneliness. It is a matter that requires attention for all ages.
▲ Loneliness does not discriminate. Provided by Shutterstock
Regulations to Tackle Loneliness
This new ministry that was just set up early this year has not yet proposed concrete outlines on how the government will address the mental health problem. Only Prime Minister May’s original intention to “bring an end to the acceptance of loneliness for good” gives a glimpse of the purpose of the Ministry for Loneliness. In the same vein, Crouch will work with the Office of National Statistics, an executive office of the UK Statistics Authority, to develop effective methods to measure loneliness. The New York Times also reported that “a fund would be set up to help the government and charities to develop a wider strategy to identify opportunities to tackle the problem.”
There are some who doubt the ministry will have any effect in reducing the number of lonely citizens in the country. They say that given the statements parliament announced, rather than a regulation, the ministry more closely resembles a laboratory, a mental health experiment laboratory that has the authority of a government association. There is no date set in stone for when the Office of National Statistics (ONS) will collaborate with the Ministry of Loneliness and there are no concrete plans regarding how funds will be raised. However, Professor Kang Pyoung-Keun (School of Law) lauded the British government for “responding systematically to the issue of loneliness.”
Kang also emphasizes the fact that the UK appointed a minister dedicated to the specific topic of loneliness, pointing out that this method will be much more effective in rooting the issue out. The professor also mentioned his hopes that the Korean government will emulate the British in addressing the issue of loneliness. For Korea, “a committee at the National Assembly should be organized and the necessary administrative organizations should begin.”
Having loneliness affecting a total of over nine million people is not a minor issue that can be ignored any further. It is a matter that impacts the entire world and not a select few people. Loneliness has expanded to become a cultural issue and a lifestyle construct. In designating a Minister for Loneliness, Britain is sending out an unequivocal call to action to restore mental health in society.